The Hebrew word usually translated ‘holy’ had a much wider meaning than the English word ‘holy’. To most English-speaking people ‘holiness’ usually indicates some ethical quality such as sinlessness or purity. To the Hebrews the word originally indicated the state or condition of a person or thing as being separated from the common affairs of life and consecrated wholly to God. (In Hebrew, also in Greek, the words ‘holy’ and ‘sanctify’ come from the same root.)

Ideas of separation for God

God was considered holy, because he was separate from ordinary people, and indeed from all created things (Exod 15:11-12; Ps 99:3; Isa 6:3; 8:13; Rev 3:7; 4:8). Israel was holy, because it belonged to God and was cut off from the religions and customs of the surrounding peoples (Exod 19:6; Deut 7:6). The Sabbath and other religious days were holy, because they were separated from the common days of the workaday world (Exod 31:15; Lev 23:4,21,24). People who were removed from secular life and consecrated to the service of God were holy (Lev 21:6-8). Places and land withdrawn from common use and set apart for sacred use or given to God were holy (Lev 6:16; 27:21). Besides obviously holy things such as places of worship, less obvious things such as clothing, oils, food and produce were also holy if they were set apart for God (Exod 29:29-33; 30:25; 40:9; Lev 27:30; Matt 7:6; 23:17; Acts 6:13). The relation of a person or thing to God was what determined whether it was holy or common (see also UNCLEANNESS).

Ideas of moral perfection

Because holiness signified separation from all that was common and everyday, the word naturally developed a wider meaning that included ideas of excellence and perfection. When applied to God this carried with it ideas of moral perfection. God’s holiness meant that he was separate not only from the common everyday world but, above all, from sin (Hab 1:12-13). As a result holiness developed the association with ethical qualities that we are familiar with in English. Because God was holy, his people were to be holy (Lev 11:44-45; Isa 57:15; 1 Peter 1:15-16). God’s holiness meant also that one day he would judge sinners (see GOD; JUDGMENT). The preaching of the Old Testament prophets was very much concerned with this ethical aspect of holiness.

The prophets emphasized that it was useless for people to be ritually holy before God if they were not ethically holy in their daily lives (Isa 58:13-14; Amos 2:7). Likewise in the New Testament the writers emphasize this moral aspect of holiness. The holiness of God is to be reflected in his people in lives of purity, uprightness and moral goodness (Mark 6:20; Eph 1:4; 5:27; 1 Thess 4:7; Titus 1:8; Heb 12:10,14). Holiness, however, is not something people can achieve by themselves. All are defiled by sin (Rom 3:10,23), but Christ, the perfect one, died to take away their sin. God can now accept repentant sinners as cleansed, because of what Christ has done (1 Peter 2:22-24). God declares believers in Jesus Christ holy; that is, he sanctifies them (1 Cor 6:11; 1 Peter 1:2). Having been declared holy, believers must make it true in practice. They must have lives of practical sanctification (Rom 6:8-11,19-22; see SANCTIFICATION).

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